Sunday, August 15, 2021

Started Early, Took My Dog, by Kate Atkinson

The fourth Jackson Brodie novel is another melancholy tale exploring the long shadows cast by murder, grief and loss. There are several interlinking plots: the small child found locked in a flat with his murdered mum in 1975; a former policewoman who was involved in that case now trying to help another child; an elderly actress in the early stages of dementia; Jackson's own investigation on behalf of a client in New Zealand. 

As in previous books, these plots all turn out to be at least partly connected, or echo one another. In fact, there's quite a lot of doubling: Jackson is dogged by a fellow private investigator with a similar name, and his rescue of a poor, abused dog dovetails with Tracy Waterhouse intervening in the life of a child. As readers, I think we're encouraged to anticipate those connections - and there's a great moment where the gender of a character is revealed, meaning the connection we've made must be wrong.

That makes it sound like this is all densely plotted, but a lot of the book is made up of extended perambulations from one or other character's point of view, picking over their feelings, anxieties and the bits of the past that still haunt them. The result all feels rather loose - at times even a little self-indulgent. Jackson revisits events of previous books, haunted by the murder of his sister when he was very young and by the train crash in the last book, but also going over past relationships from those books - and catching up with at least one of the women in question. James Bond never looks up his exes, but Jackson's past is still a big part of his life.

Among the characters whose eyes we look through is a sexist, racist policeman, complete with his favoured choice of words. Tilly is anxious about unwittingly seeming to be racist. There's a point to this, and I'm sure the author means well yet it struck me that the perspectives that make up the story are all white. Padma (no surname) is a nice, helpful runner on the set of a TV show and John (no surname) is a nice man at the Nigerian embassy, but we only see them from Tilly's point of view, as something other. It's also true of her nice, dead-from-AIDS friend Douglas, the only gay character in the story.

And I'd have liked more from the perspective of the children in the story, not least because they're the real victims of the terrible things that occur. What do they make of the adults interceding on their behalf, the choices made, the results that follow? How do they make sense of what has befallen them? I found some of what happens really upsetting - brutalised, traumatised kids offered help that is at best unconventional. The book ends with the mysteries solved, the questions answered - but surely we know it's not as simple as that. So many grown-ups in the story are haunted by things in the past, why should these kids be any different?

Me on Jackson Brodie:

1. Case Histories

2. One Good Turn

3. When Will There Be Good News?

And on Kate Atkinson's Transcription

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